Worthy Workouts

Getting fit for a good cause

In January, 2004, Robbie James, 38, made three resolutions: to get in shape, meet new people, and do something to support a worthy cause. James, the owner of Home Helpers, a four-person home-care agency in El Segundo, Calif., hit the resolution trifecta when she signed up for Train To End Stroke. The organization coaches both experienced athletes and couch potatoes so they can compete in endurance events such as marathons. In return, racers are asked to raise anywhere from $3,500 to $5,000 for the American Stroke Assn.

On the weekends, James pounded the pavement with other first-time marathoners. Weekdays, she followed a workout schedule designed by a coach from Train To End Stroke. By June, she had lost 12 pounds and was ready to tackle the Kona marathon in Hawaii with her workout buddies. "I was happy, and I felt good about completing it," says James.

Train To End Stroke is just one of several national health-related nonprofits that train novices and experienced athletes alike for major sports events as a fund-raising tactic. Team in Training, the largest such program, is affiliated with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. It coaches would-be athletes in 63 cities for marathons, half-marathons, triathlons, and century bicycle rides. In 2004, about 17,000 TNT participants brought in $85 million for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, up from $50.1 million in 1998. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Arthritis Foundation have similar programs. The National AIDS Marathon is an independent group supporting HIV/AIDS clinics in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington by training athletes to complete marathons and half-marathons around the country.

To get started, you'll first want to choose your cause, then visit the information sessions hosted by the charities and talk to past participants about their training experiences. Remember, there's only so much even the best coach can do. If you've never been much for swimming, all the encouragement in the world isn't going to make you an avid triathlete. If the thought of doing 26.2 miles seems too daunting, consider a half-marathon. The organizations all welcome beginners, and many participants are total newbies to the world of racing.

Once you've signed up, get ready for clinics on everything from nutrition to proper footwear, creative fund-raising tips, and social activities. That's in addition to the weekly coaching and tailored workout regimens. For bigger-ticket races, the nonprofits often pick up airfare, lodging, and transportation expenses.

You'll be giving back, though, as there's a minimum amount you'll be expected to bring in for each event. TNT members, for example, are expected to raise between $1,900 and $4,500. Jerry DeRee, the 49-year-old owner of Dutch's Greenhouse in Wichita, Kan., was initially skittish about asking for money. But the charities do offer fund-raising advice. They'll help you conduct an effective letter-writing campaign and build a Web site to collect donations. After DeRee sent letters to friends and associates explaining that his son had been diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, the money started to pour in, much of it from loyal customers of his 11-employee company. DeRee says he is now going to try to finish one event each year.

For James's part, she says she's "very thankful for going through it and meeting the people that I did. I was determined to finish, and I did, so it was a feeling of accomplishment." Sounds like three resolutions well-kept.

By Julia Cosgrove

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